Image from the Acumen Fund Manifesto

Image from the Acumen Fund Manifesto


This past Thanksgiving, in addition to all the blessings and loved ones in my life, I reflected on a few other things I’m thankful for… toilets and lightbulbs.  Necessities most Americans easily take for granted.


Back on November 19, several Facebook postings reminded me to celebrate World Toilet Day. This international day of action is meant to spotlight a global sanitation nightmare.  More than one third of the world’s population, or 2.5 billion people, live without access to toilets and proper hygiene.  Inadequate sanitation leads to contaminated waterways and food supplies, and spreads life threatening diseases. Sadly, 1.6 million children die from diarrhea, many due to poor sanitation, every year.


Here in America, it’s impossible to imagine living without a toilet.  Or living without a light bulb.  World Light Bulb Day doesn’t yet exist to draw attention to the fact that one fifth of the world’s population, or 1.3 billion people, live without electricity.  Around the globe, many rural, low income people have simply been left in the dark.  After the sun sets, most of these families depend on burning kerosene for light.  This dim light emits smoky toxic fumes harming their eyes and lungs (inhaling kerosene fumes is equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day) and increasing the danger of fire and burns.  Kerosene is also expensive – at least 10% of household income.  Burning this fossil fuel also contributes to climate change.  Without affordable light and power, the ability to break free of poverty dwindles.


When it comes to meeting the energy needs of the developing world, we tend to hear about the mad pace of coal burning power plants sprouting up in China.  Yet emerging markets are leapfrogging to clean, renewable energy and ditching the grid all together.  Distributed solar is lighting up remote villages and uplifting the poor. And this is accelerating, in part, thanks to social impact angels.


Founder Jacqueline Novogratz,  "impact investing and patient capital, and dignity"

The Acumen Fund’s Founder Jacqueline Novogratz is intent on building a better world based on dignity not dependence, and choice not charity.

A few years back, my husband and I became partners in the Acumen Fund.  This nonprofit global venture fund raises charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders, and ideas that are changing the way the world tackles poverty. We were attracted to how Acumen truly transforms millions of lives with innovative, sustainable, scalable solutions.  To date, Acumen has patiently invested in 75 for-profit social enterprises in health, education, housing, agriculture, water and energy sectors.


In November, I attended a deep dive Energy Portfolio session to learn more about how Acumen is helping unserved populations gain access to power and light.  Since 2007, Acumen has invested $7.5 million in six renewable energy companies in India, East Africa and Pakistan. Here are a few highlights from three solar investments (also funded by other external investors):


  • d.light is designing, manufacturing and distributing solar lighting to low income customers throughout the developing world.  Their sturdy solar LED lanterns offer 4 hours of light and last around five years.  Since 2008, over 25.3 million people have been empowered with these affordable lanterns.  d.light estimates their products have saved over $767 million in savings in energy-related expenses.




  • Orb Energy is India’s leading provider of solar energy solutions, with over 100 branches installing and servicing a range of residential and commercial solar systems.  Currently 35,000 solar home systems serve over 150,000 people in rural villages. Since the upfront cost is higher than kerosene, Orb works in conjunction with local banks to arrange solar loans allowing customers to break down payments. The average payback time is around 6-7 months.




  • M-Kopaestablished in 2011, provides d.light mini-solar home systems in Kenya.  Customers pay as little as 45 cents a day for solar powered lights and phone charging, the debt to be paid within a year.  As of November 2013, M-Kopa installed solar power to over 40,000 Kenyan households and is adding another 1,000 every week.  Their team of nearly 200 employees sells products through more than 750 retail shops.




Bright, solar light is lifechanging for the rural poor.  With a safe, healthy, reliable and more affordable alternative to kerosene, solar customers’ productivity and earning potential can rise.  Businesses can extend working hours. Women can work from home.  Kids can study at night and improve school performance.  Health clinics and schools can operate longer.  Homes improve nighttime security.  Lights pay for themselves through savings on kerosene in two to six months.  Money saved can go toward starting a business or other essential needs. Aspiring customers can move up the energy ladder and add new services such as mobile phone charging, radios and fans.  Surprisingly, phone charging capability is a huge driver for villagers to become solar users. Mobile phones have become essential for banking, education, crop pricing, healthcare consultation, verification to avoid counterfeit/dangerous pharmaceuticals, and more. Solar lighting is also offsetting millions of tons of carbon pollution.


I love how Acumen measures success with lives impacted and jobs created, along with revenue earned.  And they are truly making a huge difference.  Thanks to Acumen’s solar company investments, over 23 million people now have affordable access to energy and over 950 new jobs have been created.  Considering all investments made in every sector, Acumen has brought critical goods and services to 123 million low-income individuals. By the way, back to toilets, they have also invested in Sanergy, a sustainable sanitation company in the urban slums of Kenya.  My gratitude extends to the brilliant works of Acumen – and all social entrepreneurs and non-profits – accelerating opportunities for a brighter future.


Despite the non-existence of World Lightbulb Day, this month the candles on Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras remind us of the human connection with comforting light.  And that the true spirit of the holidays will shine through: giving with love, especially to those in need.  If you’re interested in spreading some light around the world, please consider an Acumen Fund donation, or for the person that has everything, an Acumen gift card.


Let there be lightbulbs, toilets and peace on earth!


Images (clockwise) from Orb Energy, d.light, Sanergy, & Orb Energy.

My grandparents taught me well – Christmas is for kids!  Throughout the world, lightbulbs and toilets are on children’s wishlists.  Add more meaning to your holiday with a transformative gift.  Images (clockwise) from Orb Energy, d.light, Sanergy, & Orb Energy.




For a 90-second burst of hope, see the Acumen Fund Manifesto video below!